Japanese badminton star Kento Momota said Thursday he feared he might never play at an Olympics after a catalogue of career mishaps, but is feeling "positive" about the Tokyo Games.
World number one Momota was banned from Japan's Rio Games team in 2016 for illegal gambling, and was almost forced to retire last year after a serious car crash.
But the unprecedented postponement of the Tokyo Games because of the coronavirus pandemic gave him time to recover, and he is aiming for gold when he finally makes his Olympic debut later this month.
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"When the Games were postponed by a year and then it was on the news that they might be cancelled, I thought a lot about how I might not be able to play at the Olympics," Momota told reporters Thursday.
"But a lot of people have worked hard to put the competition on, and I've just tried to block out the noise and put everything into the things I can control." Momota added that his physical fitness has improved "little by little", and that he "feels really good" going into the tournament.
"I'm not thinking negative thoughts -- I'm only thinking positive thoughts," he said. Momota was unstoppable in 2019, winning a record-breaking 11 titles including the World Championships, Asia Championships and All England Open.
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But he said his "spirit was almost broken" after a January 2020 car crash -- hours after he won the Malaysia Masters -- which killed the driver of the vehicle taking him to the airport. Momota underwent surgery on a fractured eye socket after suffering double vision in training, and admitted he feared his career was over.
"I think the area where I've really grown is mentally," he said.
"I've had to deal with a lot of difficulties, and the fact that I've worked hard to get here gives me confidence going into the competition."
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Momota made his comeback at the Japanese national championships in December after almost a year out. But his hopes of returning to international competition at the Thailand Open in January were dashed when he tested positive for the virus at the airport before leaving.
His only appearance has been at the All England Open in March, where he lost in the quarter-finals to Malaysia's Lee Zii Jia.
"It was important for me to experience the feeling you get playing in a real match," he said. "There were no fans in the arena and it felt really lonely. I couldn't concentrate and I couldn't settle, so I've paid attention to that in practice."
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Momota will be looking to hold off the challenge of Denmark's Viktor Axelsen and Anders Antonsen in Tokyo, with China's defending champion Chen Long also in contention. The pandemic has forced the cancellation of tournaments around the world, but Momota is not worried about scouting his opponents.
"I haven't been able to fully grasp their characteristics and play styles, but it's the same for them too," he said. "Everyone is in the same boat, so you really need to focus on playing your own game as best you can."